Sermons December 15, 2013 Third Sunday of Advent

A Sermon Preached by Dr. Stan Henderson
Trinity Presbyterian Church
Oroville, California

December 15, 2013
Third Sunday of Advent

“The Heart of Christmas”

Luke 1:26-38

Are you ready for Christmas? Advent consists of the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, a season of hopeful expectation of the coming of Christ into the world. There’s a lot to do before Christmas. There’s decorating the Christmas tree, stringing up Christmas lights, baking Christmas cookies, hanging stockings over the fireplace, enjoying the music at the Christmas Cabaret tonight, and still more Christmas shopping to be done.

The Christmas season can be a time of frenzied activity. There are parties and celebrations and family dinners. People will say that the meaning of Christmas is in the spirit of giving, that Christmas brings out the best in us. Even the stingiest kind of person, like Ebenezer Scrooge, can be transformed by Christmas into a generous giver.

It was Jesus who said it is more blessed to give than to receive. I know that’s true and it is a sentiment which seems to fit perfectly with Christmas. However, there is also something important to say about receiving. It is more difficult to receive. We may prefer to think of ourselves as givers, that is – people in control, people with power, people who make things happen. On the other hand, I think that the heart of Christmas is not so much about how blessed it is to be a giver, but rather how essential it is to see ourselves as receivers. That may not be what the Christmas commercials are telling us, but it is what we see in the biblical account of Christmas.

Luke says the angel Gabriel appeared to Mary and told her that she would give birth to the Son of God. This was such a famous event that it even has a title: the Annunciation. That’s simply Latin for: the Announcement.

It is surprising that God would choose Mary to be the mother of Jesus. There is nothing special about her. She was one of the common, poor people of the land. She was from Nazareth, and Luke adds that this is a city in Galilee because he doesn’t expect his readers to have heard of it. It was a small, unimportant village.

Jim Edwards writes that recent archaeological excavations at Nazareth give us the picture of “an obscure hamlet of earthen dwellings dug into the rocky hillside, numbering perhaps 35-50 families, with a total population of less than 200.” Nazareth had such a poor reputation that later, when Philip went to Nathanael and told him he had found the Messiah, who was Jesus of Nazareth, Nathanael answered: “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Mary was just a young girl. Luke describes her as a virgin betrothed to Joseph. Betrothal usually occurred as young as 12 or 13 for a girl and was arranged by the parents. Betrothal lasted a year before the wedding ceremony, during which time the girl remained with her parents. It was a legally binding part of the marriage and a betrothal could only be broken by a divorce.

It is to this young peasant girl that the angel Gabriel appears with the message: “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Gabriel says she will conceive and bear a child who will be called the Son of the Most High. Mary’s response gets at the real heart of Christmas. To the angel’s announcement she exhibits a spirit of openness and obedience.

In Frederick’s Buechner’s little book of character sketches of people from the Bible, he has this to say about the angel Gabriel as he encounters Mary: “She struck him as hardly old enough to have a child at all, let alone this child. But he had been entrusted with a message to give her, and he gave it. He told her what this child was to be named, who he was to be, and something about the mystery that was to come upon her. ‘You mustn’t be afraid, Mary,’ he said. And as he said it, he only hoped she wouldn’t notice that beneath the great golden wings, he himself was trembling with fear to think that the whole future of Creation hung on the answer of a girl.”

What we see first of all is Mary’s openness to receive what God will give her. I think Luke wants us to notice the contrast between the birth announcement to Mary and the birth announcement to Zechariah in the verses right before it. Zechariah was a priest and he represented all that was good and true in Israel’s priesthood. And yet Zechariah was not able to simply trust in God. An angel comes to Zechariah and announces a miracle – that his wife Elizabeth, unable to bear a child, will give birth to a son whose name shall be John. This would be John the Baptist.

Zechariah’s response was: “How will I know that this is so? For I am an old man, and my wife is getting on in years.” Zechariah doubts that what the angel has proclaimed can actually come to pass and he asks for some kind of proof. So Zechariah is told that he will be unable to speak until the birth of his son has come to pass.

In contrast, the angel comes to Mary and announces that she, though a virgin, will give birth to a son and his name shall be Jesus. And most amazingly, she is told that her son will be called the Son of the Most High, in other words, the Son of God.

The announcement of the angel is overwhelming and incomprehensible to Mary. Yet she does not, like Zechariah, doubt its truth. She does not ask for a sign to prove the veracity of the words. She only asks for further information – “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” She believed the messenger from God, but she does not understand how it will come to pass.

The contrast between Mary and Zechariah was between two people who believed in God. Zechariah’s faith was weak and needed convincing, however Mary, though a young girl, evidenced a mature faith that was open to receive whatever God gave her.

In his novel, Herman Melville describes the young sailor Billy Budd, who, though willing to listen to the stories about Jesus, never truly appropriates the message for himself. Salvation was to Budd, Melville wrote, “like a gift placed in the palm of an outstretched hand upon which the fingers do not close.”

It’s okay to think of Christmas as a time of giving. But more importantly it is a time of receiving. Christmas is the gift of Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, and we are the recipients. Jesus does not want our admiration or respect. He asks us to believe in him; to believe that he is God who has taken on human flesh in order to reveal himself to us, to love us, and to give his life to restore us to a relationship with himself.

Another trait so evident in Mary is her faithfulness. Mary’s final words are: “Here am I, the servant of the Lord; let it be with me according to your word.” She had not planned this. This was not a pregnancy of her choosing. She had received from God the most awesome task imaginable – of giving birth to the Son of God. But Mary would do it obediently.

In Luke’s Gospel, Mary is the first real person of faith we meet. In Mary we see that faith requires sacrifice. For the most part, I think that we would prefer that our faith keep us safe. We want to be comforted by faith. We want the security of faith. But it is Mary who reveals to us the risk of faith. Mary accepted all that came from the hand of the Lord. She accepted all the good that God intended for her and she humbly accepted all of the pain that would accompany it.

What makes Mary such a powerful example for us is her willingness to take upon herself a very costly discipleship. True, she was only a young girl, but Mary surely knew what the consequences of saying “Yes” to God would mean. The angel’s announcement placed her in an extremely difficult and even dangerous position. Mary knew how radically it would influence her social position and especially her relationship with Joseph if she should become pregnant before her marriage. For Mary, acceptance of God’s word would mean that the village would view her as an immoral woman which could have dangerous repercussions. Although a man of great faith and piety, Joseph would surely have divorced her were it not for the visit of the angel to him.

The theologian Ken Bailey asks a question I hadn’t considered before – Why did Joseph take Mary with him when he went to Bethlehem to register his family for the census? In the Middle East then, and even now, you don’t take women to a court or to conduct official business. It is always a husband, a father or a male relative who performs the service on behalf of the woman.

So why take Mary, when she was pregnant, on the arduous journey from Nazareth to Bethlehem, a distance of about 70-80 miles? Bailey’s answer is that it must have been because to leave Mary in Nazareth alone might have endangered her life.

The good news of Christmas is that the angel’s announcement was met with a ready heart. You know, I think annunciations still happen. God has lots of announcements to make to us, if we are open to hear them. God continually approaches us and asks us too to bring Christ into the world – into the world in which we live.

Many times you and I are confronted with perplexing choices. What kind of difficulties are you facing now? – in your marriage, your career, your health? Even in the midst of hardship and pain, can you see the opportunity to say yes to God? – to serve God in a way you had not dreamed of before? That’s the faith we see in Mary, and in her example we find hope for ourselves.

I invite you today to receive the good news of Christmas, to know that the promise of Christmas is real, that it is the story of God coming to you. And the peace and hope of Christmas is God’s gift to you. When we receive the gift of Jesus Christ, and allow him to fill our hearts and lives with his divine presence, then we will experience the heart of Christmas.

When we sing the final verse of “O Little Town of Bethlehem” at the close of our service, let this be your prayer today –
O holy Child of Bethlehem! Descend to me, I pray;
Cast out my sin and enter in, be born in me today.
I hear the Christmas angels the great glad tidings tell;
O come to me, abide with me, my Lord Emmanuel!

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